The Green Black Market Spotlight Team: The Green Black Market

A Newhouse Spotlight Team Investigation

                                                 Video, audio and digital news investigation

                      by Nardeen Saleep, Zach Richter, Jamie Korenblat and Josh Feldstein

(Nardeen Saleep): When New York state made a big splash and announced its process in 2021 to license cannabis shops in the state… it painted a picture of a smooth rollout that would lead to fully above board operations.

(Zach Richter): Tonight, in a Newhouse Spotlight Team investigation… we’re raising questions, whether it’s all been a complete failure! We sent four of our spotlight investigators – undercover – to find what we’re calling a “green – black market.”

(Jonathan Maxim): You can find it anywhere.

(Richter): He’s talking about a network of illegal cannabis shops, popping up all over Onondaga county.

(Maxim): There’s no enforcement.

(Richter): And there appears no end in sight.

(Maxim): You shut them down over on A street, they’re going to open up on J street.

(Jake Dishaw): Some of it, it’s really just out there in the open, you drive around and they’re advertising it out on the street, they have framed signs on the sidewalk flags, sometimes they have people working, passing out flyers…”

(Richter): You’re going along with the Newhouse Spotlight Team undercover, as we uncover one…after another…after another…

(Maxim): If there’s no enforcement, it’s a free for all.

(Richter): In the city of Syracuse– it’s city code enforcement working with the state office of cannabis management, blasting notices on the illegal places its finding. But as we found out – through the eye of this pen – The number of illegal places is more than four times the number of places OCM has closed for good. Loud, blatant, fearless… Syracuse’s web of illegal cannabis shops hides in plain sight.

(Nat Sound):
Josh: Do you have any uh disposable carts? Any dispos here?
Employee: Yeah which ones you looking for?
Josh: Like two gram maybe.

(Richter): A cart is glass tube that holds cannabis oil and can be vaped.

(Nat Sound):
Employee: Um I have the street…I think street kings they’re called.
Josh: Maybe…can I see one real quick?

(Richter): Less than a quarter mile away…we find the very same type of operation.

(Nat Sound):
Employee: So, 2… that’s one gram… this is two grams, two and a half grams, three and a half grams

(Richter): Over a period of two months… the spotlight team fanned out across the greater Syracuse area, finding stores regulators seemingly can’t, selling cannabis products under the table.

(Nat Sound):
Josh: it smells like ice cream…what’s going on man?

A friendly greeting…he sells chips, hats, ice cream…and weed.

(Nat Sound):
Josh: you got any weed? Like carts by chance? Disposable carts?
Employee: You 21?
Josh: Yeah.

(Richter): Selling weed illegally…but you still need id…no selling to minors here.

(Nat Sound):
Employee: You have ID my friend?
Josh: Yeah I gotchu.

(Richter): He’s trying to make sure of more than just his age…

(Nat Sound):
Employee: Not a cop?
Josh: No not a cop, come on.
Employee: If you ever do come back here, it’s called the VIP room.
Josh: Alright gotta
Employee: You live here around?
Josh: I live like around here but I’ve been looking for a specific one, but I haven’t found it yet.
Employee: You’re not with the government?
Josh: Huh?
Employee: You’re not with the government?
Josh: No I’m not with the government.
Employee: OK…

(Richter): Even thought he was suspicious…he then showed us everything.
And it’s not the only place we found with a secret vip room…they walk us back in yet another place, and there’s so much more to see.

(Nat Sound):
Josh: Oh you got like a whole other room back here, gotcha.

(Richter): Not just in the back, but under the counters.

(Nat Sound):
Josh: These are what? 4 grams? 2 grams?
Employee: These are one gram.
Employee: These are the disposable ones…
Josh: Yeah alright.
Employee: And then for the cartridges, these are the ones we have.
Josh: Alright
Employee: You got two grams, $50.
Josh: Gotcha

(Richter): In all, the Newhouse Spotlight Team uncovered 18 different smoke shops in the Syracuse area, all operating with a unique touch.

(Maxim): There’s a lot of sneaky ways, you know, I mean, you know, if this corner store is making a lot of money, okay, so you don’t sell it out of the store, you know what I mean? You pay some kid to stand outside the store.

(Richter): Jonathan Maxim is familiar with what we uncovered, because of his former career. The owner of DeWitt’s only legal cannabis dispensary, Loudpack Exotics– says he was just a college kid when he started selling weed.

(Maxim): And then it started to get very very out of control very very quick, until I turned into full blown, you know, hopping on the plane, going to California, loading the plane with 300 pounds of marijuana, flying it back, and it just got… it just got crazy for.. It got to that level. We started with an ounce and then we’re emulating the movie Blow with marijuana. So I was kind of that guy.

(Richter): As someone familiar with the black market, he tells us it’s easy to get around the law.

(Maxim): It’ll come in a block, you know, and then they’ll put dryer sheets over the block, then they’ll put motor oil over the dryer sheets, and then they’ll saran wrap it…again and wrap it…to really kill the smoke, the smell.

(Richter): That’s why he says he’s glad the state says it’s done with warnings.

(Kathy Hochul): Let’s give states and localities ways that they can padlock the doors, number one, and shut down these flagrant violators. Let’s start doing that. Let’s start having some teeth.

(Richter): The Newhouse Spotlight Team sat down with one of the people responsible for putting up these violation signs…and he says the state is trying to help.

(Dishaw): Now we do have some additional tools that we’ve added, because we’ve seen these popping up throughout the city.

(Richter): The Newhouse Spotlight Team sat down with one of the people responsible for putting up these violation signs…and he says the state is trying to help.

(Dishaw): I’m probably not surprised. I mean, we see it, we’re working a number of cases right now, we have another… a number of pending court cases that we’re working through right now as well. But again, I want to stress the purpose of what we’re doing is to ensure that, you know, these businesses are licensed. That guarantees safe products, guarantees testing requirements are met, so people are, you know, consuming safe and not toxic products.

(Richter): One GI doctor we spoke to agrees that unregulated cannabis cartridges present a unique danger.

(Dr. Ted Koh): So, marijuana is a drug and like any drug, if it’s not regulated, if it’s not tested for purity, things like that, then there’s more potential for patient harm. So, I’m not opposed to marijuana as long as it’s regulated in a careful way.

(Richter): And it’s not just hurting patients… Jake Dishaw and Jonathan Maxim both say it’s also hurting the business owners doing it the right way.

(Dishaw): If I had a lawful retail place that’s open right now, and I was competing against illegal places, you know, nearby man, I mean, that’s got to be frustrating if somebody that is patient, following the laws.

(Maxim): Now it’s unfair because I’m paying taxes on this marijuana. It’s unfair because they get Cali weed and I don’t get Cali weed. You can shut them all down now when it comes to me because that’s only gonna make my business grow.

(Richter): The Newhouse Spotlight Team reached out to the office of cannabis management many times–to ask what the holdup is in getting these places shut down– and they did not get back to us. For Jonathan, he has one thing to say to OCM.

(Maxim): Hurry up. Hurry up and enforce. Enforce.

(Saleep): Zach, thank you. It took us two months to put this all together. Going into store, after store, undercover.

(Richter): Yeah, and the three of us have never done something like this. So, our Newhouse Spotlight Reporter Jamie Korenblat joins us now at the desk and Jamie what was this experience like going into all these stores?

(Jamie Korenblat): Yeah Zach, so I went in with one of my fellow team members and every time we went in, we were greeted with a hello, sometimes a how are you. The store was lined with everything from soapas to candies to laundry detergent, but we were also able to get some cannabis there. So, we asked to see different amounts of cartridges. And pretty quickly they were able to show us what they had. Sometimes we had to be taken into a back room to see what they had. But I got in there and recorded my audio and I got what I needed. So.

(Richter): And Nardeen you also went into a lot of the stores here. So, how careful did you have to be?

(Saleep): Yeah, I mean a lot of these shop owners or employees. Were very suspicious of people that they didn’t know. So, you had to be very careful not to make it seem like you were trying to find out anything. You had to be very careful, to have a very casual conversation. And that’s what we tried to do for a lot of these and that’s how we got what we did.

(Richter): Ok, Nardeen and Jamie thanks so much. Make sure to check out our digital and podcast piece below for our full investigation.

SYRACUSE, N.Y. (NCC News) — It has been a little over three years since New York State legalized the recreational use and sale of marijuana, which was already available medically since 2016. Across the state,  legal cannabis dispensaries are beginning to open, with the first here in Syracuse opening about a year ago.

But putting the legal shops aside, such as FlynnStoned Cannabis Company in Armory Square or the new LoudPack Exotics in Dewitt, there are countless hidden shops all over Onondaga County selling cannabis, as discovered by the Newhouse Spotlight Team in this video, audio and digital news investigation. 

Those in younger age groups who cannot produce a 21+ ID when asked for one at a legal cannabis dispensary are thriving off of this black market, with easy access to brands like “FRYD” and “Smoke Kings,” enticed by the bright packaging, unique flavors, and more affordable options. Also popular in this market are laboratory-made drugs that act like THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol) but, in reality, are Delta-9 or synthetic cannabis.

In the past two months, the Newhouse Spotlight Team has been undercover, sending four journalists to 18 stores that sell unauthorized cannabis without a license. Most of the places uncovered by the Spotlight Team sell snacks, drinks, and nicotine products, like any corner store, as a front for their cannabis operations. Despite crackdowns by the state and local governments, many are still in operation.

Audio investigation by Jamie Korenblat

(Nat Sound): “How’s it going man” “hey boss”

(Jamie Korenblat): Shop after shop, we were greeted with a casual, slightly suspicious hello

(Nat Sound): “hi” “what’s going on man, how are we doing” “Ok”

(Korenblat): Most of these smoke shops looked the same, the store, lined with colorful bongs and a hippy looking inflatable dude smoking a joint.
But what else do these smoke shops all have in common? They’re unregulated, selling questionable cannabis products.

(Nat Sound): Josh: “Do you have any carts by chance”
Worker: “ya, ya”
Josh: “Fire. these like, what, two grams, four grams?”
Worker: these are one gram”
Josh: “one gram, alright”
worker: “are you looking for carts or dispos”
Josh: uh dispos, actually dispos would be better ya.
Worker: we have one gram and two gram dispos.
Josh: “gotcha”
Worker: “would you like to see the one or the two”
Josh: let’s see the two”

(Korenblat): This was just one of many interactions we encountered in our four month long Spotlight Team Undercover investigation.
Some showing us their products willingly and some, well a little bit more suspicious of us when asking questions.

(Nat Sound): Worker: “So you don’t live here?”
Josh: “Huh”
Worker: “Do you live here, around?”
Josh: “I live around here but I’ve been like looking for this specific one but I haven’t found it yet so.”
Worker: “You’re not with the government are you?”
Josh: “Huh?”
Worker: “You’re not with the government”
Josh: “No, I’m not with the government”

(Korenblat): The issue of the un-regulated cannabis market has led some smokers to develop serious health problems, leaving health professionals worried.

(Ted Koh): “In the past, there was something called cyclical vomiting syndrome. They’re episodes where people just start vomiting. In-between times they’d be fine. Sometimes they’ll stay with abdominal pain.”

(Korenblat): That’s Doctor Ted Koh, he’s an GI who has seen patients come in with effects from unregulated cannabis use.

(Ted Koh): “Back in my day, the average THC content in marijuana was about 4%. Now it’s easily 20%. So they’re getting a lot higher doses. There’s also easier access when you’re younger, and there’s thought that the younger you are when you start doing marijuana, the more likely you’re going to develop this hyperemesis syndrome.”

(Korenblat): It’s not just doctors who are worried, but it’s also the people working in the cannabis industry who are doing it the legal way.
Whether that’s from a business standpoint or concern over people’s overall health, that concern is heightened more than ever.
Max Davis is an owner of a cannabis farm in California who has been working in the industry for seven years.
In a zoom call conversation with Max, he explained what the process is like when someone takes regular weed and transforms it to be unsafe to consume

(Max Davis): “In addition to synthetic cannabis, as you say, it’s also just like, people are doing regular cannabis products, cartridges, vaporizers and things, but doing a bad job with them. So a lot of them are using butane and then they’re not properly cleaning the butane by the time it goes in the cartridge and then you get a really dangerous product that shouldn’t go on the market.”

(Korenblat): For reference, butane is in what you fill up your gas tank with.
For the regulated cannabis businesses in Syracuse, the unregulated market poses a huge threat to how they’re going to make their next paycheck.
Our investigative team sat down with LoudPack Exotics owner Jonathan Maxim, The owner of the legal place, who spoke his mind candidly about these shops.

(Jonathan Maxim): “100%. Well, 100% financially is affected. You know, it’s affected. You know, it’s affected. you know, I’ll share data.” “90% of our customers are over 40 years old. Why, when all you college kids, you all smoke and everybody’s getting it.”

(Korenblat): For Jonathan, he has a clear message for New York State officials…

(Jonathan Maxim): “Hurry up. Hurry up and enforce. Enforce. you know, spend the money for the staff, because you’re gonna make the money.”

(Korenblat): “And we took what the spotlight team found to Director of city syracuse code enforcement Jake Di-shaw to find out what they have been doing about this on going issue

(Jake Dishaw): “I think it’s hard to kind of patrol or keep a, you know, keep a close watch on because I think any given time, at any given store location, this could be happening. But again, I want to stress the purpose of what we’re doing is to ensure that, you know, these businesses are licensed that guarantee safe products guarantees testing requirements are met. So people are, you know, consuming safe and toxic products.”

(Korenblat): I’m Jamie Korenblat for the Newhouse Spotlight Team

Unregulated marijuana is subject to the incorporation of potentially harmful substances like pesticides and traces of heavy metals, linked to short-term health effects, according to Dr. Ted Koh, a gastroenterologist with Associated Gastroenterologists of CNY. Both Dr. Koh and the State government say it’s users aged 12-29 that are experiencing the most synthetic cannabis-related visits to the emergency room.

According to Jonathan Maxim, the owner of Loudpack Exotics, a legal dispensary in Dewitt, the lack of enforcement of marijuana licensing laws up to this point is the main reason the illegal market is thriving in New York State, making it easier than every to get around the law. 

“It’s just been a free for all for so long, and then you shut them down over on A street, they’re going to open up on J street,” Maxim said.

Besides re-opening under a different name, Maxim says there are plenty of ways for shop owners to evade the law and make money.

“There’s a lot of sneaky ways, you know, I mean, you know,” Maxim said. “If this corner store is making a lot of money, okay, so you don’t sell it out of the store, you know what I mean? You pay some kid to stand outside the store.”

Loudpack Exotics owner Jonathan Maxim, owner of a legal shop in Dewitt
Loudpack Exotics owner Jonathan Maxim, owner of a legal shop, talking to use about the illegal cannabis market (Josh Feldstein/Newhouse Spotlight Team)
© 2024 Joshua Feldstein

To combat this web of illegal cannabis shops, New York State has committed extra funds and resources to state and local police as well as the Office of Cannabis Management. On April 15, less than one month ago, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul announced more initiatives to get these illegal distributors shut down in the FY25 Budget Agreement. It includes increased fines against landlords as high as $50,000, enhanced local authority, statewide task forces, and padlocking illicit storefronts. 

Despite the crackdown, illegal cannabis is still plentiful in Central New York. 

Explicitly Illicit

The Newhouse Spotlight Team walked into countless stores around the Syracuse downtown area, Mattydale, Dewitt, North Syracuse, and many more. After months undercover, the team uncovered a web of shops selling just about every type of cannabis product one could think of: cannabis flower, pre-rolled joints, edibles, cartridges, disposables vapes, and more. Many of these shops had all of their products in plain sight, making no attempt to hide their cannabis. Though some were suspicious including one employee who asked whether our investigator was with the government or the police. After hearing a no, they showed the investigator everything.


Back room of W. Manilus Street Smoke Shop
A back room filled with disposable cannabis vapes (Josh Feldstein/Newhouse Spotlight Team)                                                                                                                                                                                                                   On multiple instances, the investigators were taken into back rooms, packed full of cannabis products. The walls resembled rainbows, glowing with different brands and colors of unauthorized cannabis vapes. One store even had a name for their cannabis stock room: “The VIP room.” In it, one wall was lined with nicotine products, and one wall was lined with similarly branded THC products. 
© 2024 Joshua Feldstein

One store the investigators uncovered had a unique product: THC drinks from the brand Ayrloom, normally only seen at licensed cannabis dispensaries in New York State.


The THC-infused ayrloom drinks
The THC-infused ayrloom drinks available outside the “VIP Room” in a smoke shop (Josh Feldstein/Newhouse Spotlight Team)
© 2024 Joshua Feldstein

This was not the case at every store the investigators visited. Many had signs from Office of Cannabis Management reading “Illegal Cannabis Seized” and violation signs from the City of Syracuse office of code enforcement. The investigators found some of them to still be selling cannabis products under the table.

Lack of Enforcement

The legal market is ramping up in Syracuse, with the most recent addition being Jonathan Maxim’s Loudpack Exotics in Dewitt, another safe option for those looking to buy real, New York State-authorized marijuana.

Before Maxim’s venture into the legal market, the former teacher spent three decades patrolling the underground zones, all starting when his mom was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis when he was in college. Maxim says she needed the cannabis to help her MS, and as his mother needed more cannabis, he became more entrenched in the illegal market.

Soon, it got out of control, Maxim states– lugging 300-pound shipments from California to New York and becoming a well-known figure for his involvement in the cannabis industry. From learning the underground side of it all for decades, he knows just how these stores are running at the moment. He says many have their weed shipped in from the other side of the country from California.

“It’s all about “the plug.” Who’s your plug? Where are you getting it from?” Maxim said. “Cali marijuana is different from New York marijuana. Syracuse, New York, as we all know, doesn’t have that California sun and marijuana plants thrive off the light, they want the light, they want that natural sunlight.”

California marijuana is popular in the illegal market because of the cheap price per pound, mass growing systems, and natural sunlight. Maxim refuses to have outdoor marijuana at his dispensary. It may be what he used to deal with in his time in the underground industry, but he says now now all 45 of his vendors are from indoor growing facilities.

After opening Loudpack Exotics near the beginning of April, Maxim has already noticed a certain age demographic coming into his shop: a majority of his customers are over 40 years old. 

Maxim says this is because the younger groups are more interested in going into corner stores and buying cheaper products. He says there is no incentive for younger people to go to licensed cannabis dispensaries as opposed to corner stores selling unauthorized marijuana.

Maxim says the corner stores have another advantage: access to marijuana from California. As a New York State seller, Maxim is limited to marijuana grown in the state.

“You know, with no enforcement now, everybody in the local areas, all the inner cities now, and everybody’s been exposed to the California marijuana, and it’s fantastic weed. It’s way better weed,” Maxim said. “So all the young kids are running to the gas stations, they’re running to the corner stores.”

The Spotlight Team investigators spoke to a customer at a store selling cannabis illegally. She says she gets free cannabis joints from the owner sometimes, and although she describes them as ‘funky,’ she says they still give her the high she is looking for, which is what matters to her.

That ‘funky,’ abnormal taste is a big concern for Jonathan Maxim, who says the reason for that can bring a danger to these products.

“You get a little spray bottle and spray some chemicals on it, and then you smoke it, and I’ve seen so many people say this just, this doesn’t taste right. You know what I mean? I’m high. But it doesn’t take well, because it got sprayed and you don’t know,” Maxim said. “They’re spraying marijuana now with serious stuff to make people get high, you know what I mean? It’s extremely dangerous.”

This is another reason why the lack of enforcement is not only bothering dispensary owners like Maxim, but also those in the medical field who are seeing patients come in from cannabis usage, specifically in the unregulated market with the abundance of unregulated stores in the area.

Dr. Ted Koh, a gastroenterologist with Associated Gastroenterologists of CNY, has noticed many recent trends in terms of health effects being seen with these newer, stronger, THC-rich products that are hitting the market.

As you know, in low doses, it [marijuana] can actually help chemotherapy-induced nausea, but there’s some theory that taking too much, that’s part of the problem now with the legalization of marijuana,” Dr. Koh said. “Back in my day, the average THC content in marijuana was about 4%. Now it’s easily 20%.”

Inside of the shelf at CNY Smokeworld
Inside the shelf at a smoke shop; edibles on the bottom shelf and cartridges and disposable vapes on the top. (Josh Feldstein/Newhouse Spotlight Team)
© 2024 Joshua Feldstein

Higher THC content in this cannabis, illegal market or not, is leading to younger users seeing the effects of cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome, a cycle of abdominal pain, vomiting, and additional gastro-related problems; all strongly linked to cannabis usage. Linked to marijuana usage, it is more commonly known as CHS.

“There are studies in Canada that the rates of emergency room visits for this [hyperemesis syndrome] go up about…went up about…13-fold the first seven years that they’ve legalized marijuana,” Dr. Koh said.

These “first seven years” is a big chunk of time where in much of the United States, and in New York too, saw illegal cannabis shops and black market sales of marijuana escalate to those who are not 21 and cannot visit new dispensaries.

Dr. Koh says he feels strongly about the dangers of unregulated marijuana, but he believes Gov. Kathy Hochul’s recently announced initiatives will help localities take action and come up with possible solutions.

If it’s not regulated, if it’s not tested for purity, things like that, then there’s more potential for patient harm. So I’m not opposed to marijuana as long as it’s regulated in a careful way,” Koh said. 

For New York State, they say protecting marijuana users is now a priority. Cannabis was legalized recreationally in 2021, three years ago. For the past five-or-so years, Dr. Koh says it would be fairly rare he would even see hyperemesis syndrome patients in his office.

The Newhouse Spotlight Team sat down with the Director of Code Enforcement for the city of Syracuse, Jake Dishaw. He says more legal shops like Maxim’s Loudpack Exotics could drive illegal ones out of town.

“I think, as you see more licenses issued from the state, more lawful establishments opening, hopefully, I think that’ll be a combination of, you know, putting pressure on the illegal established establishments,” Dishaw said. 

Dishaw says the process for finding and fining these illegal cannabis shops is similar to how his office handles stores that may sell illegal fireworks, don’t have tobacco or alcohol licenses. He says it is fairly easy to find which ones are operating illegally, as confirmed by the Newhouse Spotlight Team.

Advertisements, like the blow-up “RAW” joint found at some stores, local complaints, and robberies are some of the ways that Dishaw and the city of Syracuse have been able to find stores so far. “We’ve seen places that are robbed, because they’re, you know, targeted from other people that are looking at these establishments,” Dishaw said. 

“It [illegal cannabis shops] can bring other violence and other problems that, you know, obviously, we want to prevent the spread of that, too,” Dishaw said.

As New York State ramps up the crackdown on illegal cannabis distributors, Dishaw says he is hopeful the prevalence of legal dispensaries will make it easier for the city to track down and investigate stores selling cannabis illegally, in this “Green Black Market”

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